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Tuesday 26 March 2019

This team is far better than '99 side - Larkham

Aussie Skills Coach and former fly-half Stephen Larkham
Aussie Skills Coach and former fly-half Stephen Larkham
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

'Four more years, boys!' went George Gregan's cry when Australia overcame the All Blacks in the semi-final in 2003 and he's never lived it down.

"Every time I go to New Zealand, the Kiwis give me that one," he said recently. "It's become a bit of fun anyway. But it was just a moment that was captured on camera..."

All over the world, the All Blacks are feared and revered but when it comes to those closest to home it has never been that way. Despite losing 105 of the 154 meetings between the two sides, the Wallabies always retain an inherent belief that they can beat the All Blacks.

At World Cups, the record is more favourable. In 1991, they beat them in Dublin to reach the final, while the 2003 team repeated the trick. Four years ago, New Zealand came out on top en route to their second title. Saturday will be their first meeting in the final.

Lexicon

It has been noticeable this week that the words 'All' and 'Black' have been absent from Michael Cheika and his team's lexicon, an old trick designed to demystify the world champions.

It helps when you've won the Webb Ellis Cup yourselves and the media Down Under have gone as far to enquire as to whether Australia or New Zealand might get to keep the trophy if they make it a hat-trick of titles on Saturday.

The answer was no; indeed it appears World Rugby hadn't given the idea of following football's lead much thought.

Still, it is a reminder that, while New Zealand are the current kings, Australia have plenty of pedigree.

Both teams have two trophies embossed on their left sleeve and, while Matt Giteau is the only member of their squad who remains from their last final appearance in 2003, there is World Cup-winning experience in the Wallaby coaching set-up in the form of former fly-half Stephen Larkham who wore the No 10 in 1999 and 2003

"I haven't even tried to offer them anything," he said of trying to instruct his team on trying to handle the pressure this week.

"The biggest thing for us in 1999 was the quarter-final stage, so there was a lot of pressure on the team coming out of the pool stages. We were expected to do well into the knockout stages and we really struggled with that pressure through that week, but then we got over that hump and got on a roll until the final.

"This group here have been on a bit of a journey together, they've played some hard games over the last year together and have really grown as a team into this tournament; we've been through a fair bit.

"This journey is fairly similar to 1999. The guys got together under Cheika less than a year ago and have had accelerated growth together.

"In 1999 and 2003 we had two years of preparation for those campaigns. These boys are at the same stage we were at, particularly in 1999. This team is much better."

That is high praise from the mercurial Larkham, but in order to join the esteemed company the Wallabies will need to produce the performance of their lives on Saturday.

While Australia's last win came 16 years ago, New Zealand have plenty of players in their squad with more recent experience of World Cup success and managing final week.

Yesterday, Keven Mealamu was the first of the old guard to brave the media and dismiss talk of his impending retirement for another day, but he conceded that having been there and done it four years ago will help as the chance to become the first team to go back to back approaches.

"I just think it's an exciting challenge and one we're working towards, we've an opportunity to do it but we've plenty of things we need to get right," the veteran hooker said.

"It's a different situation (to four years ago), so you have to understand that. The more you do understand it, the better you cope. When you're new to it, that can be hard to adapt to. We're lucky enough to have been in that situation before.

Learnings

"There are a few things that are transferable, playing in a final - putting the opposition to one side - knowing what comes with that and knowing how people are feeling… but it's a new challenge, in a new place, different opposition and ground but there are obviously learnings."

For Larkham, it is important that the players take the time to drink in their surrounds in what is sure to be a career-defining week while retaining the focus on the job in hand.

"A good balance there through the week," he said. "The last four games have been high pressure stakes for us, for different reasons.

"England being our first game at Twickenham, the lead-up was a bit different, and then the way we sort of handled the game against Wales down to 13 men, coming to a quarter-final when there's obviously a different pressure because it's the knockout stages... I think the way we prepared last week for the semi-final is something we can certainly take on board and continue."

Finals experience will count, but Saturday is a new day for some new faces to claim long-term bragging rights as well as a place in history.

Irish Independent

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